Breaking the 4th Wall

Gnome Stew asked an interesting question recently, in Fair or Foul: Unexpected GM Fait. They described a situation that was impossible for players to overcome with a specific skill set. In this case an Elf in Shadowrun was attempting to charm her way past a Troll guard. The GM told the player to not bother rolling because there was no chance of success. An argument erupted over the issue as the player thought the situation was unfair because it meant that 25% of the time her skill set was going to be useless, and she should have been told at character generation. The argument ultimately was never resolved and the players ended up bending to the GM’s will. So they asked, was this fair or foul?

It makes me wonder though why the GM decided to take such a hardline stance by announcing that the player didn’t have a chance. While I don’t disagree with the GM’s choice of making it so Troll’s don’t have an attraction to elves I wonder why he didn’t just add enough modifiers to make success practically impossible? Which leads me to my question, is it better to announce that a player has no chance of success or is it better to give them the illusion if you are only going to smack them down anyway?

On one hand I find not telling the players they don’t have a chance to be a bit more realistic, most of the time we have no idea if a plan is going to succeed or fail right off the bat. Sure we generally have an inkling and our experience gives us an edge but to blatantly inform the player strikes me a bit too much of a deus ex machina (thank you word of the day calendar) for my taste. Obviously working this type of edge into game mechanics is a bit tough and some thought should be put into the subject before implementation.

Giving the illusion of success allows the GM a bit more freedom to craft the story to his liking. Announcing the success/fail in such a crass manner comes across a bit power hungry and unwilling to play nice with others. Illusion in roleplaying games is everything why take it away from the players?

How would you have handled the situation? Would you craft a nice excuse or would you have just told them to not even bother?

  • 77IM

    I don't like to roll when there is no chance of success or a super-slim chance of success — it just slows the game down for no real reason (that 1% chance of success is not worth it, unless the success would be a spectacular win for the party).

    But, I also don't like to tell the players things their characters wouldn't know.

    But, I also don't like players to automatically fail — if they are role-playing something that has a small chance to succeed, they should at least get a shot at it.

    So my usual solution is like this. If the action is something that seems unreasonable (swimming up a waterfall, leaping a 300 ft chasm, sweet-talking a zombie), I'll just tell the players not to bother rolling. If it's something that seems like it should work, I'll let them roll, and make that roll worthwhile even if the attempt fails. In the example from Gnome Stew, I'd have let the elf make her roll with a penalty — and on a success, the troll wouldn't budge, but some club patron overhearing the conversation would give her an invitation. This way you can reward good role-playing and creativity without allowing outrageous successes or forcing automatic failures.

  • Tyson J. Hayes

    Now that method I find far more reasonable and still in line with the setting.

    I of course am also a huge fan of rewarding good roleplaying. Typically I'd rather not put my players in that type of position. If they blow my mind doing really well with the roleplaying I'd give them an out that other wise wouldn't be there. After all we have to keep them creative right?